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What type of player should Manchester United target in January?

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United need reinforcements, but the January transfer window can be a minefield

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Manchester United v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

Since the first day of the season it was clear Manchester United were going to need to bolster their squad in January. Last season the club embarked on a rebuild that they made very clear, would take more than a single transfer window. As of now, only one transfer window has passed, but if a rebuild requires multiple transfer windows, it’s crucial to not let one go by without doing anything.

The club’s net spend of just £60 million last summer left many fans calling ownership cheap and questioning how committed they were to getting the club back to glory. In fairness, the £80m brought in from the sale of Romelu Lukaku happened right before the English deadline closed, leaving United unable to spend that money. However, that line of defense can only be used if the club re-invests the money in January.

United have stripped the team of a lot of aging parts and now have the youngest team in the league. They’ve given looks to many academy players with two of them becoming full first teamers. But because this is Manchester United, results are still important, even in the midst of a rebuild.

While the results haven’t been that bad, it’s a long season and United have a very thin squad. They need reinforcements so that they can distribute minutes better and the squad doesn’t burn out.

This was was true before Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba picked up injuries. Now, it’s essential. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has acknowledged as much. Solskjaer has said United will be looking to bring some players in, but they also have to be the right players. He’s also made it a point to remind everyone that January is not an easy market to get deals done.

Those comments have not gone over well with fans. They see it as Solskjaer making excuses for Ed Woodward and the Glazers so they won’t have to spend money on new players.

The Glazers and Ed Woodward should not be trusted to get things right. They’ve made far too many mistakes in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era to be given any leeway from the fans. But that doesn’t make what Solskjaer said any less true.

It’s not easy to do deals in January. Top players don’t move.

Just take a look at the 12 most expensive transfers in January history.

Most Expensive January Transfers

Rank Player From To Amount
Rank Player From To Amount
1 Coutinho Liverpool Barcelona �142m
2 Virgil van Dijk Southampton Liverpool �75m
3 Oscar Chelsea Shanghai �60m
4 Christian Pulisic Borussia Dortmund Chelsea �57.5m
5 Aymeric Laporte Athletic Bilbao Manchester City �57.2m
6 Diego Costa Chelsea Atletico Madrid �57m
7 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Borussia Dortmund Arsenal �56m
8 Fernando Torres Liverpool Chelsea �50m
9 Paulinho Barcelona Guangzhou Evergrande �38m
9 Alex Teixeira Shakhtar Donetsk Jiangsu Suning �38m
9 Lucas Moura Sao Paulo PSG �38m
12 Juan Mata Chelsea Manchester United �37.1m
Football365

Look at this list. Other than Virgil van Dijk, the most expensive January transfers list is more likely to feature players that would appear in a Google search for “worst January transfers” rather than “best January transfers.”

January has become more about clearing out players that clubs no longer want, than getting a blockbuster signing. There are some exceptions here but not really. Van Dijk and Coutinho both tried to leave over the summer and were unsettled the entire first half of the season. By the time January their clubs were ready to get rid of them. Pulisic was a loan back, so he didn’t actually leave BVB until the summer. Laporte had a record high buyout clause, City paid it, so Bilbao didn’t have a choice.

We know that United need improvements. They need depth in central midfield and in attack. They need a first choice number 10, but who is actually available?

It’s well known that James Maddison is Solskjaer’s number 1 attacking target. Ten years ago, if United wanted him he’d be at Old Trafford by the end of the week. Offer Leicester City £15 million and they wouldn’t be able to turn down that money.

Nowadays, why would Leicester sell him? Thanks to the Premier League’s monstrous TV contract, every Premier League club is financially stable. They aren’t going to be bullied by the big teams anymore, because they don’t need the money. Maddison is their best player, the backbone behind Jamie Vardy’s scoring tear. They’re second in the table and have a chance to qualify for the Champions League. Why let him go mid-season?

Jack Grealish is another up and coming player who fits United’s style of play. Put him in over Andreas Pereira and he’d immediately make United better. But Aston Villa are in a relegation battle and their only hope of staying up is Grealish. Why would they let him leave? United could offer them a lot of money now, but if Villa hold on to him that offer will simply come again over the summer, only then they may be able to add that money to another year of Premier League income.

Bruno Fernandes has six goals and seven assists in 13 games for Sporting this year. We already know he wants to leave, and with the title race, and even the Champions League, pretty much already beyond them why not take the payday? Well, Sporting have only scored 24 goals this year. Bruno has had a direct hand in 13 of them. If they lose him they could risk falling out of even the Europa League spots. Is that a risk Sporting would be willing to take?

The same thing could be said of Ruben Neves or basically any player in the Premier League.

January isn’t about taking your squad to the next level. It’s about bolstering your squad, giving you depth, building towards the future.

The last times United dipped their toes into the January transfer market they forgot this. They came away with Juan Mata and Alexis Sánchez. While Mata has been a serviceable player for United, he was never the “record signing” United thought they were getting. And the less we say about Alexis Sánchez the better. The fact that two English rivals were letting them go to United mid-season should have been a red flag as it is.

Mata was coming towards the end of his prime and Sánchez was past his. This is why United should be wary about spending money to sign Christian Eriksen long term. Data suggests attacking players hit their peak around 26, especially those that break into first team football at 18. With Eriksen turning 28 next month, he’s more likely at the end of his prime than in the middle of it.

So who should United be going after? I can’t give you specific names but I can give you a type of player.

Look no further than the last two great January signings United made. They happened 14 years ago when United signed Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra.

Vidić and Evra would go on to become two of the greatest United defenders ever. They won five Premier League titles, the Champions League, the Club World Cup, and were the backbone of one of the best defenses in Europe in the late ‘00s.

But when they were signed in January 2006, they weren’t signed to make an impact in 2006. They were expected to contribute here and there for the rest of that campaign, but the primary purpose was for them to settle into the team and be ready to hit the ground running at the start of the following season.

It would be unfair to call Vidić and Evra projects, but they also weren’t first choice players when they arrived. Vidić started 11 of United’s 23 matches over the second half of the season. Evra started just eight.

This is what United should be looking for — players who can play a few games here and there, but with the ultimate goal of settling in to be ready for next year. And it’s for this reason (put away your torches and pitchforks!) that Sean Longstaff isn’t the worst idea in the world.

Longstaff’s numbers are down a bit this year, which isn’t so surprising considering that he’s gone from being managed by Rafa Benitez to Steve Bruce. It’s also hard to judge exactly how good a midfielder can be in this extremely defensive and rigid Newcastle team.

It’s also important to remember, at 22 years old, Longstaff is not the finished product. There is room for growth, and room to get better. His current numbers may not be good, but a year ago Scott McTominay had terrible numbers too.

Statsbomb

This year, under the coaching of Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, and Kieran McKenna, McTominay has turned into an essential part of United’s midfield. Next to him, Fred has gone from a £52 million bust to the best midfielder in the team. Marcus Rashford is having the best year of his career, as is Anthony Martial. Who’s to say that these coaches wouldn’t be able to improve Longstaff too?

It doesn’t have to be Sean Longstaff, but it should be someone like Sean Longstaff.

Longstaff is more potential than the finished project though, and while you can never have too much potential on your team, United need starters as well. And that’s why Emre Can’s name is intriguing.

Like the rest of you, I’m not a fan of Emre Can. He doesn’t move the needle in the slightest. But a quick look at his numbers shows he’s better than most of us think he is, though his lack of forward passing is a great concern. Most importantly, he’s available.

Now, if you think that Can isn’t a good fit and United shouldn’t sign him solely because he’s available? Then you’d be echoing Solskjaer’s sentiments when he says United won’t simply sign players for the sake of signings players. Unfortunately, the right players aren’t typically available in January, putting United’s long term transfer strategy at odds with their short term need for immediate reinforcements.

United are in a precarious situation. They need bodies and because of that, they need to get creative. Think about another one of their best January signings: the 10 week loan for Henrik Larsson in 2006/07. There are leagues out there that aren’t currently in the middle of their seasons. Bringing in a player on a short term loan if for no other reason than to avoid playing Nemanja Matić, or not forcing Fred to play every game, just to buy time until Pogba and McTominay come back, may not be a terrible idea.

Even if United want to play the long term rebuild card, they still need to be active in this transfer window. If that means signing for depth, so be it. But they should also be looking to take that Lukaku money and getting a head start on next summer. Ideally, they would sign players like Grealish or Maddison who could contribute right now and still have their best years ahead of them, but the odds of those players being available are slim.